Romance Scams: What You Need to Watch Out For When Dating Online

How well can you know someone you have only ever met online? Dating site fraudsters hoodwink innocent victims into handing over their hard-earned cash. With these courting cons booming during the pandemic, find out how to spot the lies and learn what to do if the worst happens.

Joel Kempson Published on 03 February 2022.
Romance Scams: What You Need to Watch Out For When Dating Online

Chatting online without meeting face to face is now a common part of the modern dating scene. Research in 2019 by the Imperial College Business School in London predicted that 2035 will be the first year when more couples will first meet online than in real life. And that may happen even sooner, given the impact of the pandemic on dating in person. Online dating can be a great tool for building connections and even for finding lifelong relationships. But it is not without its dangers.

Many couples meet through various dating apps and websites, before going on to start in-person relationships, but a growing number don’t manage to make it that far.

Romance scams have been on the rise during the pandemic, according to the national reporting centre for fraud and cybercrime, Action Fraud.

Fraudsters have seen the crisis as fertile ground for a whole host of complex tricks, and many are now moving into the arena of relationships. These scams follow the template of a classic confidence trick, but can have long-lasting consequences for their victims.

The pandemic has left many people alone and actively seeking friendship. This has given scammers an easy opportunity to make money. At least £92 million was lost to romance fraud in just the 12 months between November 2020 and October 2021, according to Action Fraud.

What is romance fraud?

Online dating scams commonly involve criminals building a relationship with a victim who they then ask for money from. Creating a fake profile to meet people online is not in itself illegal, but intentional deception in order to gain money is classed as fraud.

Most major social media sites ban fake accounts in their terms and conditions, but it can be difficult to totally stamp them out. Typically, a scammer will target an isolated or vulnerable person in the hope that they are less likely to alert friends and family to any red flags. The fraudster might also give the impression of being vulnerable themselves, in order to create a connection and build trust or even to make their victim feel more powerful.

The fraudster’s next step is to gain the trust of a victim through manipulation and persuasion, often over the course of several months. They usually have an excuse for being unable to meet in person, such as working abroad or being stranded in a foreign country. The images they use online might be stolen from legitimate profiles or taken from stock image sites rather than real photos of the person typing the messages. Victims may be encouraged to continue communication away from the dating site, such as via email or WhatsApp. This is usually because dating sites are more alert to dating scams and may ban an account they believe to be fake.

Once the perpetrator has built up enough trust, a common pattern is that they then come up with a highly emotive reason to ask for money. This could be for travel expenses in order to meet in person, funds for medical bills or even cash to buy a house together. They might also insist on a means of payment that is more difficult to reverse or be stopped than a bank transfer. For example, some fraudsters might ask for gift cards, insist you use a certain money transfer service or pay them in cryptocurrency. Victims might also be encouraged to lie to their bank about who or what the payment is for. This is to avoid arousing suspicion, but also makes reversing the transaction more difficult once the scam has been reported.

Some perpetrators disappear once a first payment has cleared, but many will continue to target the same person for a sustained period of time – or until the victim realises they are being scammed.

How to spot romance scammers

Many romance scams are committed by skilled fraudsters who are experts in targeting vulnerable people, gaining their trust and extorting money. For some victims, there may have been very little they could do once they had been targeted, but for others there might be ways to spot dating site scams before it is too late.

A romance scammer might:

  • refuse to meet in person
  • refuse to meet using a video chat service
  • want to know everything about you, without giving any personal information themselves
  • tell a heartfelt personal story that is followed up with a request for money
  • ask for money to pay travel expenses to visit you
  • ask you to borrow money on their behalf
  • ask for access to your bank account or other personal financial information
  • push you to use an alternative messaging network, rather than the dating site you met on
  • ask for personal documents, such as a driving licence or passport
  • insist you are secretive about the relationship
  • show evidence of wealth, but complain about cash flow problems

How to protect yourself from romance fraud

While fraudsters can be manipulative and persuasive, having a set list of red flags can help you stay safe online.

These steps can also be useful to protect vulnerable friends or family members who you think may be the victims of online dating scams.

You can protect yourself from dating site scams by not:

  • sharing personal financial details online
  • sending money to anyone you have met online
  • accepting money from someone you have met online, as it could be part of a money-laundering scheme
  • building a serious relationship with someone who refuses to meet in person

You can also:

  • Reverse image search a profile picture, to see if it appears anywhere else online.
  • Talk to a friend or family member about an online relationship and listen to them if they spot any danger signs.

What to do if you’ve been scammed

Realising you are a victim of a romance scam can be traumatic, but the sooner you take action the less long-term damage scammers can cause.

If you think any of your passwords might be compromised, you should change them immediately. Choose a strong, memorable password to protect your email – Cyber Aware, the government cyber advice centre, recommends using three random words and offers further advice on password security.

Call your bank on the number listed on your card and report any unexplained charges as fraudulent. If you have been duped into transferring money over to a fraudster, you should explain this too. You can also contact the bank the money was sent to, as they may be able to stop the transfer. Your bank will have a policy in place for dealing with fraudulent transactions and scams. That doesn’t mean you are guaranteed to get your money back.

If your bank insists that you cannot have your money back then it is worth contacting the Financial Ombudsman Service. This is a free service that will independently adjudicate your dispute with the bank.

Romance scams often fall under Authorised Push Payment scams and are regulated under the voluntary Contingent Reimbursement Model (CRM) code. This aims to reimburse customers who are not to blame for a scam. If your bank is signed up to the scheme, it should reimburse you, though you may have to use the Financial Ombudsman Service to ensure it does.

Romance scams are increasingly common, so by reporting your experience you may be helping to protect others. If you have been the victim of a romance scam and you live in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, you can contact the police online through Action Fraud. Alternatively, you can phone the police on 101 or Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040. If you live in Scotland, you will need to contact the police directly on 101.

Reporting fraudsters to the online dating platforms they have contacted you on can also be an important tool to prevent further scams. The platform you are using should make clear its required terms of behaviour and have a system in place to report certain actions and block other users. This should all be explained to you when you sign up. You can check the services that have committed to the Online Dating Association (ODA)’s industry standards by using its Check A Site tool. You can also look out for its “Putting Safety First” logo on certified sites.

If you have been the victim of any kind of online dating scam, you may find it has a significant impact on your mental wellbeing. Charities, such as Citizens Advice, which offers a free Scams Action service online or over the phone (0808 250 5050) in England, Mind and Victim Support, Victim Support Scotland or Victim Support Northern Ireland can help you through difficult times.

Image source: Getty Images

About the author:

Joel Kempson is a personal finance expert and writer at NerdWallet. He has previously written for Money.co.uk and Uswitch, as well as being quoted in the Daily Express, The Mirror and The Sun. Read more

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